Auburn had a breakthrough year in the 1983 college football season, winning the SEC championship for third-year coach Pat Dye and getting the automatic berth to the Sugar Bowl. Michigan was making its first appearance in the New Orleans game. Here’s a look back at how both the Tigers and Wolverines got to January 2 and the 1984 Sugar Bowl…
Dye had taken over in 1981 when Alabama’s Bear Bryant ruled the state, the SEC and was larger than life in the nation itself, including a recent run of national championships in 1978-79. Dye went 5-6 his first year, but improved to 8-3-1 a year later and was establishing his program as a legitimate challenger.
Auburn had a sophomore running back by the name of Bo Jackson and he ran for over 1,200 yards and got All-American recognition, paving the way for a Heisman Trophy by his senior year.
The running game didn’t stop with Bo. Lionel James was shifty and explosive, running for 728 yards. Tommie Agee provided the muscle, and he pounded out over 600 more yards. There wasn’t much of a passing game—Randy Campbell only threw for 873 yards, but he at least avoided mistakes, with just three interceptions all season.
Auburn’s growing respect nationally was seen in their #5 preseason ranking, and the Tigers beat a decent Southern Miss team 24-3 to start the year. They hosted third-ranked Texas after that, but the Longhorns outstanding defense stifled Auburn in a 20-7 loss. Texas would go on to an undefeated season. Auburn temporarily slipped out of the Top 10.
The Tigers didn’t allow a hangover to carry over though in a road trip to Tennessee a week later. The Vols were good, ultimately winning eight games and their dominant defensive tackle Reggie White would win SEC Player of the Year. It didn’t stop Auburn from ringing up a 37-14 blowout.
The schedule didn’t get a whole lot easier with a home date with Florida State, ranked #17 at the time, though the Seminoles would only finish 6-5. Auburn trailed 24-20 late in the game before Campbell threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to James with just under two minutes to play. Linebacker Greg Carr then came up with an interception to secure the 27-24 win.
Kentucky had a nice team, but Auburn went to Lexington and rolled the Wildcats 49-21 and moved back to #5. The Tigers beat two bad teams in Georgia Tech and Mississippi State to nudge to #4. It was time for the most demanding stretch of what had already been a demanding season.
Auburn was in a tough fight with Georgia and Florida for the SEC title, with all three teams being unbeaten in league play and Alabama just a game back. The Tigers would play the Gators and Bulldogs over the next three weeks and sandwiched in between was a non-conference game against seventh-ranked Maryland, with Boomer Esiason behind center.
Florida had the conference’s best passing quarterback in Wayne Peace. Bo and Peace provided the contrast in styles and each played well in an excellent football game. Jackson ripped off touchdown runs of 55 & 80 yards, piling up 196 yards on the day as Auburn built up a 28-7 third-quarter lead. Peace threw for 336 yards and led a rally that closed the gap to 28-21.
The Gators also had two future NFL running backs in Neal Anderson and John L. Williams, both starters on good teams in the pros. But Anderson lost a key fumble near the goal line in this game to help dig the early hole and when Auburn covered an onside kick with 2:54 left, they were able to close out the win.
A 35-23 win over Esiason’s Terps solidified Auburn’s position at #3 in the polls. They and Georgia were the only teams with perfect SEC records and they would meet in a 3 vs. 4 game in Athens on November 12. In a tough defensive fight, Auburn won 13-7 and clinched a tie for the conference championship. They got a sweet win over Alabama, 23-20, in Bryant’s final season to wrap up the SEC outright.
Playing in major bowl games was nothing new for Michigan under Bo Schembecler. They had won the Big Ten’s spot in the Rose Bowl five times in the previous seven years.
The Wolverines had lost wide receiver Anthony Carter, as the Big Ten Player of the Year moved on to the NFL, but Michigan could always run the football. Rick Rodgers was the conference’s second-leading rusher, with just over 1,000 yards. Quarterback Steve Smith was a mediocre passer, but ran for 667 yards. There were two All-Americans on the offensive line, in Stepfan Humphries and Tom Dixon.
Bo Schembecler’s team was ranked #10 to start the season and opened with two games against good Pac-10 teams from the state of Washington. The Wolverines edged Washington State 20-17 at home, but dropped a tough 25-24 decision at Washington to slip to #17 in the polls.
Another decent opponent in seven-Wisconsin was up next and Michigan went to Madison to get a 38-21 win. The schedule then got softer and the Wolverines blasted through sub-.500 opponents in Indiana, Michigan State and Northwestern by a combined 120-18 and got themselves back up to tenth in the national rankings.
A battle with #12 Iowa was nationally televised from Ann Arbor and it was worthy of the showcase. With the game tied 13-13, Michigan moved into field goal range and Bob Bergeron drilled a 45-yard field goal across his body from the hashmark to win on the final play.
Michigan and Illinois were the only teams perfect in Big Ten play, but the Wolverines lost the head-to-head game 16-6 on the final weekend of October. Illinois had a soft November schedule, so any hope for a Rose Bowl return was basically gone. But the Wolverines were still prominent on the radar of major bowl organizers.
They destroyed bad teams in Purdue and Minnesota, scoring a combined hundred points in the two games and it set up the season finale with Ohio State. It wasn’t winner-take-all for the Rose Bowl like it had been so often in the previous fifteen years. But it would have the next-best thing—the Sugar Bowl announced that the winner of the battle between 8-2 teams would get the invite to New Orleans.
Smith stepped up with his arm and his Triando Markray on a 67-yard touchdown strike, part of a building an early 10-0 lead. Ohio State came back and took the lead, but Michigan forced four turnovers and one of them set up a short touchdown run by Smith for a 17-14 edge early in the fourth quarter.
Ohio State drove to the Michigan 38-yard line and then called for a “fumble-rooskie” trick play, where the quarterback places the ball on the ground and an offensive lineman pulls around to pick it up and take off, since it’s technically a fumble. But in this case, it was more than a technicality. Defensive tackle Mike Hammerstein blew up the play, the ball began bouncing around and the Wolverines recovered.
Smith then led a 60-yard touchdown drive, accounting for 43 of the yards with either his arm or feet that all but sealed the game. The Buckeyes answered with a touchdown but a covered onside kick put the finishing touches on Michigan’s 24-21 win and their Sugar Bowl bid.
By the time the Sugar Bowl kicked off in prime-time, everyone knew that second-ranked Texas had lost. As the game unfolded, everyone knew that fifth-ranked Miami had #1 Nebraska in a fight for its life. Auburn was in the mix for a national championship.
The game was a defensive war. The Wolverines put up a touchdown midway through the first quarter, but would not score again. But penalties dogged Michigan the rest of the night, and Auburn slowly chipped their way back. Very slowly.
A Tiger field goal with 6:17 left in the third quarter got them on the board and another one cut the lead to 7-6 with nine minutes left. Auburn made its own share of mistake, from three turnovers, to bad pitchouts that lost yardage and denied Jackson the chance to make plays.
Finally, the Tigers reached the two-yard line with less than a minute left and kicker Al Del Greco booted a 19-yard field goal. Auburn won 9-7.
When Miami completed its stunning 31-30 upset of Nebraska, it should have opened the door for Auburn to be #1. The Tigers had beaten eight bowl teams. The Hurricanes had beaten two. While Miami’s bowl win had been drastically more impressive, there was no comparison between the overall body of work between these two teams.
But the sizzle of what happened the night of January 2 trumped the steak that was Auburn’s season-long performance. They settled for being #2. Auburn has had its share of frustrations in their pursuit of the national title that wouldn’t be fulfilled until 2010, from going undefeated and uncrowned in 2004 to being undefeated and on probation in 1994. The fact they got robbed in 1983 is often overlooked.